How do you plan for a race measured in hours? I will sometimes overhear runners discussing 5K strategy. It usually involves running at a specified intensity for various intervals with the goal of finishing as quickly as possible. Personally, I’ve always used a “run as fast as you can” strategy… which may explain why I suck at 5Ks. Anyway, I digress.
Needless to say, ultramarathons require a different strategy than the faster, shorter races. Even a typical marathon strategy won’t necessarily be effective. Important note- I’m assuming you are not planning on winning the ultra you’re planning; your goal is to finish. Lazy runners don’t plan to win.
Before we delve into detail, there are a few universal differences between ultras and sub-ultras. The longer the ultra, the greater this difference.
- Walking is acceptable. Only the elites will run the entire time.
- Eating during the run is more or less required.
- Ultras are about surviving… you always have to assess the cumulative effects of your decisions. A bad decision early in a race will haunt you throughout.
Okay, now we tackle strategy.
The first thing to consider: the distance. Generally speaking, longer races require more walking. In a 50 mile race, you may walk a total of 10 miles. In a 100 mile race, you may walk 40-50 miles.
The second consideration: cutoff times. Most races will set an absolute time before everyone packs up and goes home. Most races will require you to meet certain time checkpoints. If you fall behind these checkpoint, you will be removed from the race.
The third consideration: terrain. A flat course will require a much different strategy than a mountainous course. When assessing terrain, it is also useful to note the different obstacles you will encounter. Will the course consist of asphalt? Dirt trails? Sand? Lots of rocks and/or roots (technical trail?) Stairs? Steep hills? It is easier to run faster on certain surfaces; this will play a role in planning.
The fourth major consideration: fitness. The greater your fitness level, the faster and longer you will be able to run. Personally, I usually overestimate my fitness level. I am slowly learning how my body will react to long distances, which results in a better plan.
The fifth consideration is aid stations. The time does not stop while you’re gorging yourself on M&Ms and salted potatoes. The time spent in aid stations will affect your overall finish time. As such, it is necessary to factor this into planning. I like to plan on a five minute stop at each aid station. I tell my crew to keep the stops under one minute. Depending on how much primping I need, my time usually falls between those two times.
The sixth consideration- slowing as the race progresses. Remember, you’re a lazy runner. You won’t be running negative splits in an ultra. Assume your second half pace will be significantly slower than the first half pace.
The last major consideration: weather. Some conditions, such as heavy rain (and subsequent mud), snow, high heat, oppressive humidity, or strong winds can slow you down. It is important to estimate the climate and local weather before developing a race strategy.
Now that you have done the requisite research, you will be prepared to map out a strategy. How exactly you devise that plan will depend on your organizational habits. I like to estimate a variety of finish times with the elapsed time I would expect to reach each aid station. It takes some work, but it gives me an easy-to-follow spreadsheet that I can use during the race to determine if I am going too slow or too fast.
Warning- make sure your crew understands your chart. Luckily, my 100 mile finish was helped significantly by Michael Helton’s ability to interpret my laminated posterboard filled with mileage numbers and times. Michael deciphered this between rushing from one aid station to the next. It would have been wise to explain my system before the race started.
I found it is easier if I don’t plan walk breaks. In my first 100 mile attempt, had planned every single walk break throughout the race. Not only was it incredibly time-consuming, it was impossible to follow once the race started. It served as a major distraction. Some runners will use a specific time ratio to determine walking breaks. I have experimented with this idea extensively and was never able to find a good solution that worked well. Now I use more of a Zen-like approach and walk when I feel like it.
The race strategy you map out will go a long way towards preventing the unexpected. Still, the more potential problems you can anticipate, the greater the likelihood of finishing.